A Weird Week

Personal, Work
A beautiful photo to get you through these last teasing weeks before spring. (Photo via Unsplash.)

A beautiful photo to get you through these last teasing weeks before spring. (Photo via Unsplash.)

It’s been a weird week. I’m waiting for feedback on my second draft and I’ve been a tad under the weather. So productivity was down, but only slightly. I re-read my draft a couple of times and I’ve found myself growing quite fond of the characters. You’d think characters would be like children, you birth them and immediately love them. But these characters came to me only partially formed and I had to build them into something interesting.

But are they interesting? That’s the question that nags at me. I’ve succeeded in creating something that I like. But I’m not one of those artists who’s just in it to please themselves. Actually, other people not liking my work would not be the worst thing. Other people being bored by my work would be the worst thing.

Progress Update

This week I read and edited my draft, sought feedback, and re-wrote the short film script that will accompany this feature length script. The good news is that I’m actually ahead of schedule by about two weeks. Oh! And I thought of a title. (That’s big for me.)

My Challenges

Being patient and figuring out how to fill the gap between finishing the draft and getting feedback. I brainstormed a little for my next script but didn’t feel like I could devote enough head space to it yet.

 

The Vicarious Shame of a Racist Heritage

Personal

There’s a poison that contaminates my childhood memories and present day interactions. It has trickled down through generations, robbing me of the ability to feel proud of my heritage. It’s even difficult to discuss this poison publicly, because it infects people I love dearly, and while they may not feel its shame, I do. I’m talking about racism.

My Background

I grew up lower middle class in rural North Carolina. The elementary school I attended was kindergarten through 8th grade, and at its highest enrollment had about 300 students. I estimate 99 percent of the students were white, as were 100 percent of the teachers. Our foreign language education (French) was eliminated in 5th grade. (I remember that clearly because I was disappointed.)

I was raised Southern Baptist. My church was also all white. I will avoid telling specific instances of racism in my family and community because I feel an impulse to protect the people I love, even when I abhor their racist ideologies. All you need to know is that I was not allowed to interact with black people or their culture. At that time, I’m not even sure my hometown had even the most white-washed of ethnic restaurants. Chinese and Mexican food moved in when I was a teenager. (Or at least that’s how I remember it.)

The high school I attended was much more diverse, though whites were still a huge majority. The social groups seemed naturally segregated, with only a few kids crossing the lines between groups. I remember at least one big fight over racial tensions.

Healthy Skepticism

Somehow, from an early age, I sensed the inherent wrongness of racism. Of course some prejudices seeped in and had to be dealt with as an adult. But overall I remember knowing very clearly that the racism in my family and community was not simply wrong, but a pernicious and ugly evil. Looking back, I’m not sure where I diverged from my upbringing. My mom never actively espoused racism but passively accepted it in others. I attribute much of my understanding to her.

I was also in church once or twice a week, memorizing Bible verses and singing songs. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight,” goes the children’s Sunday school classic. It boggles my mind to think how that song was passed down through the years by people who most certainly did not treat people of color as souls that God himself holds precious. But I guess I took the song at its word. Besides, I could never find anything in the Bible that supported racial prejudice. I knew that certain verses had been twisted by racists and segregationists to support slavery and Jim Crow, but their manipulations seemed to me quite obvious and in direct opposition to everything Jesus taught. When I questioned elders about this lack of Biblical support for prejudice and racism, I was told it was simply common sense that the races should remain separate.

Education and travel only reinforced and strengthened my childhood aversion to racism. I began to question everything I was taught, and on many issues (Okay, most issues) I found myself breaking away from conservative teaching. My generation seems torn between the two. I know lots of people my age who have abandoned that part of their upbringing. Others in my generation have adopted a sort of Racism Lite™ which is not as readily noticeable as that of their elders but is definitely still toxic. I squeamishly consider this progress. But why have some of us been able to break away and others not? Why are some people completely content to accept what they’re taught without questioning it? Because as we all know, racism is not a genetic malady: it has to be taught.

My Ancestors

My great-great-grandmother, Hattie.

My great-great-grandmother, Hattie.

Recently I became fascinated with Ancestry.com. (Before people start jumping in to warn me of potential inaccuracies, let me say I take it with a grain of salt.) For the unfamiliar, Ancestry.com gives you access to tons of historical records: census data, military records, birth and death certificates, etc. The site also links you to family trees that overlap with yours, and you can import their data into your tree. Using this method I’ve been able to trace my lineage extraordinarily far back in time. Naturally, the further back in time, the more room for error. But it’s a fun experience nevertheless.

I didn’t find much that surprised me. Each branch of my family descended from people who came to the American colonies before the Revolutionary War. All of them were European (German, Swiss, English, Scottish) and all of them were Protestant. Once they arrived in North Carolina, specifically the Piedmont area, they stayed. And stayed, and stayed. And most of us are still here! So far I have only found one Native American in my family tree; a Cherokee woman from Virginia.

As you’d expect, I found several Confederate soldiers in my lineage. I’m not proud of that but I recognize they were poor farmers and had no choice in the matter, whether or not they supported slavery. So far I’ve only found one relative who owned slaves, and even he was no plantation owner. What I did find was a noticeable lack of education. Some of the old census records document education and literacy. Many of my ancestors were illiterate. Others had not attended school but listed they were able to read and write, which begs the question, exactly how literate could they have been?

Even as recent as my grandparents’ generation, some of them didn’t finish high school and none of them went to college.  While I understand that statistically there are probably lots of professors, engineers, and doctors who were and are racist, I can’t help but think my generation has benefitted from our free, public education, laws that kept us in school to at least the age of 16, and technology that brought other cultures into our homes.

Education is Key

The recent passing of net neutrality is a step in the right direction for our country, as well as the legalization of municipal broadband. I see easy and cheap access to information as a way to hasten the downfall of racism, and all kinds of prejudice. I’m very worried, however, about the recent Conservative attacks on education in our country. I’ve read about Republicans in Texas removing critical thinkings skills from public school curricula, Republicans in Oklahoma banning the AP U.S. history course because it didn’t reflect the positive aspects of United States history, and Republicans in my home state of North Carolina are busy slashing funding to certain public university programs. I don’t have any answers for how to stop this onslaught, except to vote in better representatives. But as education rates drop and poverty climbs, the backwards thinking that has caused so much suffering in our country will be much slower to change. I try to remain optimistic, reminding myself that change happening slowly is still change, but for people whose lives are literally lost in the meantime, that’s little comfort.

The Need for Feedback

Personal, Work

There’s a feeling you get when you think something you’ve written is good. I like that feeling but I don’t trust it. This story came from my brain, of course it would strike a chord with me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see flaws in my work. That’s what this week has been about: correcting flaws, filling in gaps,  and trying to create a cohesive story.

A lot of what I’ve done this week has been what I’ve called “punching up.” Comedians are often hired to do this for comedy scripts. They add jokes and make existing gags funnier. My script is not a comedy, but I’ve been trying to apply that concept to each scene; up the conflict, enrich the characters, obscure the exposition. In a perfect world I imagine all those things would flow out of you and into the script, eliminating the need for drafts. Maybe that’s how the Charlie Kaufmans and the Paul Thomas Andersons do it.

The funny thing is, I’ve come to a point where the flaws are not jumping out at me. Last week and the week before, they were glaringly obvious. I don’t have illusions that my script is perfect. I suspect I’ve reached the limit of my knowledge, or awareness. For this reason, I reached out to a trusted friend to read the script and offer feedback. It helps to have fresh eyes read it and react to it. But I know from experience that not all feedback is helpful. I think a good rule of thumb is to reach out to someone with at least your level of expertise (or higher). I’m also considering reaching out to a professional screenwriting consultant for feedback. Given the cost of consultants, I’m not sure I want to put that much money into this particular script. It’s something I’ll have to mull over.

Progress Update

This week I finished the second draft, did two read-throughs, and a couple rounds of revisions based on my own notes.

My challenges

Fighting fatigue and loss of momentum. Knowing when something is good enough.

Forget Charlie Kaufman, this is Charlie Mauldin.

Forget Charlie Kaufman. I give you Charlie Mauldin.

Finding Balance: A Libra’s Story

Personal, Work

Formula vs. Freestyle

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about formula. Some writers are adamantly against it. Others, especially writers of screenplays, embrace it. (A quick Google search will net you opinionated missives from both sides of the line. )The formula that seems to have been accepted by much of the screenwriting industry is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, which I have read and found helpful, but also a bit confining. I feel that slavish devotion to formula will lead to predictable and boring films. But a total disregard for structure can make a film unwatchable. After all, beginning, middle, and end; rising action; falling action, denouement; these are all part of a formula, right?

I am using the Save the Cat beat sheet as an outline for my script. It has helped tremendously. But I do like the concept of learning the rules so you can break them later.

Externalized Internal Conflict

I talked with screenwriting consultant Erik Bork about my idea, and my concerns that all the conflict was internal, leaving me with a lack of action. We talked about how, due to the visual nature of film, screenplays need an external manifestation of conflict. I am excited to put this to the test, trying new ways to externalize, or visualize conflict. But since the idea I’m working on right now is naturalistic in style, I’m sticking to more realistic ways of accomplishing this. For now, at least.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is the ideas we’re “given” and how to know if they’re good or not. For the sake of this endeavor, I’ve chosen not to throw out my overall idea for the screenplay, and to work hard to craft it into something good. But there’s always that little voice that says, “This idea is lame. What a piece of crap.” It’s the same voice that asks me everyday, “Why are you even doing this writing thing? The odds of it going anywhere are so low. What a waste of time.”

I’m ignoring that voice.

Ink on Paper vs. Fingers on Keys

Do you work better with a pen and paper or do you compose on a computer? I haven’t been doing this long enough to have an established process, but I am naturally averse to routine anyway, so maybe I never will. This week I’ve relied on pens, markers, notebooks, and index cards to help me organize and visualize my thoughts. But when it comes time to actually write out these ideas, typing directing into the document is so much faster.

I’ve become fascinated with the inside of professional writers’ rooms. I love to see how they organize and visualize their ideas.

This must be the most hilarious writer's room to work in.

This must be the most hilarious writer’s room to work in.

This is a still from the trailer of a new documentary, My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn. (Click to watch the trailer.)

This is a still from the trailer of a new documentary, My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn. (Click to watch the trailer.)

Progress Update

This week I rearranged the order of the events in my story, which I think made it much more interesting. I’m also in the process of adding that external manifestation of conflict that I talked about earlier. I think this will also make the story’s resolution more satisfying.

My Challenges

My challenges this week have been staying motivated and fighting fatigue. Vigorous brain work always saps my energy and I end up needing breaks and a lot of snacks. Next week I hope to find the balance between wasting time and taking periodic breaks.

 

Show Your Work

Books, Personal, Work

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Today I reread Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work. His book is the reason I’m blogging about my screenwriting efforts. He makes a simple and logical case for doing something I’ve always found difficult: letting people see behind the curtain. For a person with perfectionist tendencies, it’s much more comfortable to keep your work hidden until you’ve finessed and approved every detail. But Kleon makes the case that a lot can be gained from sharing online throughout your process. Through sharing I could find a community, get feedback, acquire an audience, and potentially deepen my understanding of what I’m working on.

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Kleon pulled this quote from Harmon’s 2011 interview with Wired magazine. (Click to go to the article.)

But even if I gain none of that, if I keep sharing on a regular basis I will eventually have a nice record of what I’ve been up to.

Progress Update

This morning I finished my first draft! It feels a bit premature to drop the confetti and balloons. It will no doubt be the first of many, many drafts. But it feels good to have accomplished something.

My Challenges

The story I’m writing now deals with more everyday aspects of life, like work and relationships. Things I’ve written in the past dealt with more extreme behavior and emotions. My challenge right now is to find conflict in each scene (or create it) and raise the stakes enough to keep it interesting.

The Internal Dream Debate

Personal, Work

Since I put aside aspirations of producing my own film a few years ago, I’ve been torn between what I inelegantly deem the “real world” and the creative world. I have desperately searched for a job that would bridge the two, and have found none. (At least within my geographical bounds.) I avoid talking about it, because of feelings of embarrassment and self-consciousness. Failure is difficult to bear. Success is easier to share with others.

My desire to find a regular job and be a productive member of society has kept me from really focusing on the creative urges that put me in this predicament to begin with. If I could only get a full time job, if I could only earn more money, then I’d feel justified in spending more time writing. But as with most things in my life, I only make changes when my established plan of action has repeatedly failed to work.

I’ve decided to plant my flag on the creative side, at least for a while. I have fortunate circumstances that allow me to focus my efforts on the risky and speculative pursuit of screenwriting. I created a schedule that should, theoretically, allow me enough time to complete two full length screenplays, but with no time for dilly dallying. I have written five rules to help myself avoid the pitfalls of working from home. The research I’ve done about writing scripts on spec tells me that I will need at least three scripts when I begin shopping them around. I’m also looking into the possibility of hiring a reputable consultant to help me refine my work. (Hey, it’s cheaper than film school.) And I will blog about the process once a week.

What happens if what I write is never produced? What if it turns out I’m a really awful screenwriter? At least I’ll have done it. And maybe I’ll be able to move on.

You can read more of my story on Medium.

What do you think?

2015

Books, Games, Movies

Nerd-Alison

While I have some big goals for 2015, I thought it would be fun to write about the smaller goals I’m aiming for this year. Specifically in regards to upping my nerd cred.

I’ve always been what I consider “nerd adjacent,” having a lot of friends who are into stereotypically nerdy things like science fiction, comic books, and role playing games. I like science fiction but I’ve mostly only seen very recent movies like Moon or Another Earth. (Both excellent.)  When I fell headlong into a Game of Thrones obsession a few years ago, I learned how fun it is to be part of a fan community. It’s been on my mind for a long time, that I’d like to be able to experience this culture in a deeper way.

Thus I’ve set these goals for myself in 2015.

  • Watch the Star Wars movies. (All of them, even the ones people say are bad.)
  • Read a graphic novel. (A very patient friend lent me his copy of the Watchmen months ago but I’ve been having trouble connecting with it.)
  • Play a game or two of Dungeons and Dragons.

What do you think I should add to my list?

Outward Bound

Work

In September I had the incredible opportunity to create a promotional video for the North Carolina Outward Bound School. I enlisted the help of my friend Jamison Ellis to shoot the video and record sound. We accompanied a group of educators on a hike to a rock climbing area near Table Rock Mountain in North Carolina. We filmed them climbing a face of rock several stories high. The teachers were amazing. Every single one of them climbed that rock no matter their fear or comfort level with climbing. I wished their students could’ve seen them. And after only one day, Jamison and I were completely beat! We felt like we’d been on our own little mini-adventure course.

 

Serial

Podcasts

Are you listening to Serial? No? Let me tell you about it.

serial-itunes-logo

Serial is a spinoff of This American Life. It’s a podcast, which means you can get it for free. Instead of doing self-contained episodes each week, Serial is taking an episodic approach, with 12 (I think?) hour long episodes in the season. The story is an investigation of a cold murder case, one that took place in Baltimore in the late 90s.

Sarah Koening, whose voice you’ve most likely heard on This American Life, guides you through the ins and outs and fascinating minutiae of a case that is murky at best. Her opinion of the case seems to change episode by episode, and you get to hear her go through the same feelings of second guessing and self doubt that you are having. I look forward to this podcast every Thursday. I think about it during the week. If you like mysteries, or procedurals, this is definitely in your wheelhouse. If you just love brilliant storytelling and appreciate smart and creative editing, you also will love it.

Download and binge it ASAP so we can talk about it.

Barcelona / Figueres

Travel

So we’ve been back for over a week and I am finally feeling re-acclimated. (Thanks in part to Daylight Savings Time.) Here are some photos from Barcelona and a day trip to Figueres. I’ll link to some of the places in case you’re planning a trip of your own.

I think what makes Barcelona so special is that art is built into the city, at every level. Picasso, Gaudi, Dali, Joan Miro, and others all have ties to Barcelona. You have the ancient alongside the modern, street art, space-age sculptures, monuments, cathedrals, centuries’ worth of architectural styles. And it’s all in this sun-drenched Mediterranean paradise. It makes for a heady experience.

Barcelona

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This is me in the extremely tiny staircase of our apartment building in Barcelona.

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Barceloneta beach. (Photo by Joshua Mauldin.) I think the hotel pictured looks like a spaceship that just landed on the beach.

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Barcelona is utterly enchanting. (Photo by Joshua Mauldin.) We stayed in a neighborhood called El Born, and never wanted to leave.

I shot this video in hopes of capturing some of the ambient sound of this great space. I must add a correction: the Santa Maria del Mar is a basilica, not a cathedral.

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We had a lovely bartender at a little dive called Lupara. Her name is Ivana and she took great care of us, recommending a gin we’d never tried and serving us a lunch of cheese, bread, and olives. Spaniards seem to be having a love affair with gin. Madrid and Barcelona are dotted with gin bars and cocktail menus dedicated to the G&T.

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La Sagrada Familia is a cathedral designed by architect Antoni Gaudí. Its construction has spanned over one hundred years and still has fifty years until completion. It is truly one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever seen. It feels alien and celestial, while other parts seem to be carved out of natural rock formations or dripping wax. It is both earthly and otherworldly.

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My camera can’t do it justice. This panorama is a little wonky, but it gives you a sense of the scale. We were there in late afternoon and the sun was blazing through the stained glass.

Figueres

Figueres is a little town north of Barcelona, known for being the birthplace of Salvador Dalí. My principle reason for visiting Figueres was to go to the Dalí museum, but the town had a lot more to offer.

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The Dali Theatre-Museum, topped with giant eggs. (Apparently there is another Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, and it also looks like a worthy destination.)

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Another fun attraction in Figueres is the toy museum. Old toys are terrifying!

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If you’re up for some walking the Castell de Sant Ferran is a fun trek. You tour an old military fortress and take in beautiful views of Catalonia.

Thank you for reading!